About halfway through Olivier Meyrou’s newly released documentary Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections, there’s a shot of the fashion designer smoking a cigarette. His face is out of focus and the lens is trained instead on the figure behind him: Pierre Bergé, his founding business partner and erstwhile lover. With bags under his eyes, Bergé’s stance is protective and controlling, watching over Saint Laurent, who drags on his cigarette, head tilted slightly in thought.
The scene distils the power dynamic at the heart of this sensitive, moving and, at moments, joyful documentary. The dreamy artist, driven into reclusion by the exertions of creativity, and the ambitious businessman, masterminding the whole operation. Shot alternately in black and white and colour, the film follows Saint Laurent over three years towards the end of his career, from 1998 to 2001, showing the pensive quiver of his pencil over his first drawings, through to the fittings, model selections, catwalk show and eventual delivery of the clothes.
The documentary is only just seeing the light of day, however, as Bergé forbade the film from being shown after a version of it was screened in 2007 at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s easy to see why he may have objected. It reveals Saint Laurent – the man who pioneered suiting for women and the concept of ready-to-wear – to be slow and silent, while Bergé appears controlling and sneering. At one point he’s filmed walking up the stairs of the Paris headquarters, reminiscing about when he and Saint Laurent would stand at the top of the stairs to watch the collections: “That way we could complain,” he says seriously. “Say the model was ugly or whatever.”
Meyrou, who reportedly works in a way “that is very close to a wildlife documentary” by simply sitting and waiting, captures the casual convivial chatter of “les petites mains” (the seamstresses) as they joke about using a velcro fastening on a particularly tricky velvet skirt; a young Suzy Menkes greeting Bergé on the street; sceptical talk about the new wave of “young designers”. In many ways his film is a behind-the-scenes peek into the fashion industry, yet Meyrou also manages to cut through the jargon of fashion. Perhaps most poignantly, he shows the toll a 40-year creative career takes. Saint Laurent is still designing but he can barely stand unsupported, hardly speaks, and seems mostly to sit, watching and smoking. As Bergé says in his speech at Saint Laurent’s birthday lunch – with characteristic severity: “Creation has a price, and sometimes that price is high.”